He is the last of his kind, so a lot has been riding on Lonesome George’s bid to become a father.
By Jasper Copping, 29 Nov 2008 (Go To Source) Telegraph.co.uk
The 90-year-old giant tortoise has become a cause célèbre for conservationists around the world Photo: AFP/GETTY IMAGES
However, hope that the giant tortoise and his female companion will produce live offspring are now fading, as rangers on the Galapagos Islands said that a batch of eggs are unlikely to hatch. Lonesome George has become a cause célèbre for conservationists around the world since he was found in 1971, the last known member of the Pinta Island tortoise subspecies (Geochelone nigra abingdoni).
He has been called the rarest creature in the world. During his decades in captivity, George had showed little interest in sex, but the 90-year-old surprised rangers earlier this year when he mated with a female of a different subspecies. His new-found libido raised hopes he could save his subspecies from extinction.
The eggs were laid three months ago and placed in incubators, decorated with religious images by rangers in the hope of a miracle. However, the eggs have started to show signs of being infertile. Staff at the Galapagos National Park’s “Fausto Llerena” Giant Tortoise Captive Breeding Centre said most of the 13 incubated eggs have undergone significant weight loss, suggesting there is little chance they will hatch. One egg now weighed just 82 grams, compared to 127 when it was placed in an incubator. Another egg had lost 66 grams. Normally, as eggs are incubated, weight is maintained or there is only a slight weight loss.
Freddy Villalva, from the centre, said: “Another symptom observed in these eggs is that some of the shells show a fungus growth on them.” In captivity, tortoise eggs usually have a hatching success of around 85 per cent, much greater than in the wild, where weather conditions play a major role.
Scientists now believe George, who is named after a character played by American comedian George Gobel, could be sterile. There are 11 subspecies of tortoise on the Galapagos Islands. Variations between them were among the findings that helped Charles Darwin formulate his theory of evolution. Since then, however, tortoises have been hunted by pirates and sailors for their meat, while their habitat has been eaten away by goats introduced onto the islands. The two females George shares his pen with are from the nearby island of Isabela, so any offspring would have only half the genes of a Pinta tortoise.
It would take a breeding programme several generations – and possibly more than 100 years – to recreate a “pure” Pinta. Having tried everything from artificial insemination to having George watch younger males mate, his keepers had nearly lost hope of him reproducing. At 90 years old, George should still be in his sexual prime. Hopes are now pinned on the remaining couple of eggs that have shown the least significant weight loss.